Recent reading on the history of natural history

I’ve been reading a lot books lately on the history of natural history, as background research for a new book (the proposal is currently in review, and you’ll have to wait to learn more). Among the books, some are new, some are old; some are well known, some are obscure.  Here are my minireviews (in no particular order), in case you’re looking to add that pile of books you’ve been meaning to read.

The Rhinoceros and the Megatherium (Pimentel 2010, Harvard University Press).  This pleasantly odd book tells two stories: that of a live rhinoceros brought to Lisbon in 1515, and that of a fossil Megatherium brought to Madrid in 1789.  Each was the first specimen of its kind to come to the attention of European science, and each sparked new thinking in natural history, in illustration, and more.  Pimentel explores the two specimens and their stories in the context of how science (especially natural history) was developing in the 16th and 18th centuries. I wasn’t convinced by his case for linking the two stories, but each by itself was engrossing.  The Rhinoceros and the Megatherium is well worth the time to read.

The Eye of the Lynx: Galileo, His Friends, and the Beginnings of Modern Natural History  (Freedberg 2002, University of Chicago Press).  I had no idea that in 1603, a group of Italian scientists formed the “Academy of the Linceans” (from the Latin for “lynx”), that their number included Galileo, or that they had such an interesting part to play in the birth of modern science (natural history as much or more than astronomy).  The Linceans were caught on the crux of a transformation in science, from reliance on ancient texts to a basis in observations, and their struggles were as much political, philosophical, and religious as they were intellectual. Although the treatment is more scholarly than many casual readers might want, the story behind it is interesting, and it’s possible to skip over some of the more scholarly bits.   But can we talk book design?  This leviathan weighs somewhere around 3 pounds, a good fraction due to an unnecessary 6 cm left margin and paper stock that must surely incorporate depleted uranium.  It also uses a truly eye-distressing font. I stuck with the book because I was fascinated by a period in scientific history I knew little about, but there was a price to be paid.

Pioneer Naturalists: The Discovery and Naming of North American Plants and Animals (Evans 1993, Henry Holt).  This book tells the stories of some of the men and women who explored and collected plants and animals in North America (mostly the U.S.) in the 19th century.  The hook: each naturalist or explorer is pinned to a species named in their honour (more or less alphabetically, from Sphecodina abbotti to Zenaida).  The individual chapters are great fun, and I met a host of compelling characters.  As a whole, though, I found the book tried to cover too much too quickly, with too tangled a web of interconnections, and I found myself tiring. Pioneer Naturalists is probably best enjoyed with a firm resolution not to feel guilt for losing track of a thread or two.  Praise is in order, though, for the author’s refusal to limit himself to charismatic birds and pretty flowers: among the species featured are Comstock’s Mealybug, Drummond’s Mosses, and Uhler’s Assassin Bug.

Eighteenth-Century Naturalists of Hudson Bay (Houston et al. 2003; McGill-Queen’s University Press).  The Hudson’s Bay Company drove European exploration of much of what is now central and western Canada (and parts of the north-central US).  It’s best remembered for the fur trade, but its agents also compiled vast amounts of natural-history, climate, and geographic data.  This book tells the stories of some of the men who gathered specimens and data – from the famed (Samuel Hearne) to the nearly forgotten (Moses Norton).  It also treats European scientists who received Hudson’s Bay specimens and connected them to formal science – such as George Edwards, who painted and published A Natural History of Birds and who was a friend and correspondent of Linnaeus.  More seems to be written about European collections in the tropics than about those in (what is now) Canada, and this book closes that interesting gap.  It’s quite dense, though, and repays skimming better than close reading.

The Naming of the Shrew: A Curious History of Latin Names (Wright 2014, Bloomsbury).  This is primarily a history and explanation of Latin naming (not of Latin names, as the title would suggest), but early naturalists including pre-Linnaean taxonomists (and Linnaeus himself) are featured.  It’s less about natural history collecting than about the process of naming and classifying the collected specimens – and how that process came to be the way it is for modern natural historians.  That sounds damning, but actually The Naming of the Shrew is an easy and fun read, clearly aimed at a general audience.  I gave it a more complete review here.

Flower Hunters (Gribbin and Gribbin 2008, Oxford University Press). This is perhaps the most entertaining of the books here. The Gribbins tell the stories of twelve naturalists who traveled the world to collect plants, from John Ray in the middle 1600s to Joseph Hooker in the late 1800s.  These men and women did astonishing things, and in many cases endured challenges and misfortunes that are nearly unimaginable.  If you’ve ever thought your field work was hard, read this book’s chapter about Richard Spruce!  I knew nothing about Spruce, but his story is amazing; ditto for Marianne North and several other of the Flower Hunters.  This book hit the right compromise for me, with enough scholarship and details to catch my interest, but not so much as to lose it again. This is a fine book for a back porch day in the summer.

That’s six books, and six is enough for now.  But there are more waiting on my shelf, so expect a follow-up post in a couple of months’ time.

© Stephen Heard  July 31, 2017

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